Sat, Aug 04, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Race for resources heats up

Rare earths, 17 crucial elements used in the manufacture of many high-tech products, are in extraordinary demand, but potential wealth must be balanced against environmental responsibilities

By Fiona Harvey  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

Inside every wind turbine, inside computers, phones and other high-tech equipment — from medical scanners to electric cars — there are materials known as rare earths. This small group of 17 elements are in extraordinary demand — but their supply is limited and most existing sources have been snapped up by China.

Last month Beijing — which controls more than 90 percent of the reserves of these essential elements — warned that its supplies were diminishing, despite quotas to limit exports. Chinese officials said in a memo: “After more than 50 years of excessive mining, China’s rare earth reserves have kept declining and the years of guaranteed rare earth supply have been reducing.”

This could spell disaster for the future of green technologies such as renewable energy equipment and low-carbon vehicles.

That is why Europe has been engaging in a strenuous bout of diplomacy with Greenland to allow access to the island’s natural resources. According to geological estimates, below Greenland’s vast ice sheet there could lie enough rare earths to satisfy at least a quarter of future global demand.

European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani has led the push, forging an agreement with Greenland to look at joint development of some of the deposits. The agreement will extend beyond rare earths to metals such as gold and iron and potentially to oil and gas, which are abundant in the waters around the island.

“We need innovative partnerships with other countries over raw materials. Companies are pushing the commission for this — they need this to survive. Europe is not so wealthy in raw materials and needs to do better [at forming partnerships with other countries],” Tajani said, adding that rising commodity prices had created “an intrinsic incentive [to governments] to be more responsive, because companies have to pay more for their raw materials.”

Greenland, in return, is keen to press ahead with exploring for its mineral resources, which in many cases lie trapped under 150m of ice. Henrik Stendal, head of the geology department at Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, a Dane who has worked in Greenland since 1970, said: “We have shown that we have huge potential — it has been an eye-opener for the mining industry. The EU has shown a lot of interest and that’s been very good — we believe this could be very valuable for Greenland. There could be benefits for everyone — at present most of our income is from fishing and a little bit of tourism, so the government really wants another income.”

However, the key question is whether these activities can be carried out without damaging Greenland’s pristine Arctic environment. Stendal says the government is determined to ensure miners adhere to the highest international standards, though he admits officials have little experience of regulating extraction. Jon Burgwald of environmental pressure group Greenpeace fears not: “I’m definitely nervous about the current mining projects. The information we need on these operations has not been made public.”

Burgwald says waste water from the mines is a major issue, because if it is not disposed of properly it could have “very serious impacts.” The use of toxic chemicals in some mining processes is another problem and the transport of the products to and from the mine sites could also raise issues. Equally problematic is the fact that some of the rare earths are likely to be found in deposits that contain uranium, which could lead to the dispersal of uranium dust in a pristine environment.

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